- “Too Vast, Too Complex, Too Grand”Writing Space in John Wesley Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons
In early May 1869 the steel rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, thus uniting the east and west coasts of the mainland United States and sealing the beginning of the end of the western frontier. In late May of that same year, the one-armed Major John Wesley Powell, a maimed Civil War veteran, arrived in Green River City, Wyoming, on board the Union Pacific itself, to initiate the trip that would make of him one of the last heroic figures of the West by successfully navigating for the first time the uncharted waters of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon.1 The fame he accrued from the trip would successfully launch him on his future career as the most renowned and perhaps most powerful government scientist of the late nineteenth century, instigator and coordinator of the methodical mapping of the United States as head of the United States Geological Survey, founder of the Bureau of Ethnology, a self-taught student of Native American cultures, especially of the Southwest, and expert in the arid lands of the West.2
If Powell dedicated most of his life to forwarding what he saw as the promise and potential of America’s manifest destiny, he did so in what he deemed the most rational and democratic way possible: by applying the principles of the empirical, evolutionary-minded science of the nineteenth century to the final settling of the continent in ideal fulfillment of its founding principles. Science, however, does not necessarily make good politics, as Powell would discover to his own detriment toward the end of his public career when western politicians averse to investments in long-term ideals [End Page 1] rather than instant practicalities hounded him out of office.3 His warnings that the peculiarities of the geography and climate of the West would prove unavoidable obstacles both to the dreams of agrarian independence of the middle American settlers as well as to the fantasies of instant wealth of the businessman went unheeded, though they do identify him as an early conservationist and ambivalent forerunner of modern ecological concerns. His ambivalence is in fact a product of the already politicized vision of science that Powell unquestioningly carried with him and which the spatial conundrums of his exploration narrative reveal.
At the same time, that narrative exerts its rhetorical energy in order to contain those representational disruptions of his scientific project via textual means. Scott Kirsch, for example, has shown how Powell the scientist “believed that gathering information from the West would provide a rational, scientific basis for social and environmental control, and indeed for guiding the evolution of the American nation” (“Regions” 156). Powell the writer, however, in tackling textually with the resistance the environment and its original inhabitants offered to his scientific venture, allows us an inkling of what Kirsch describes as the dire political consequences of well-meaning scientific endeavor: “too often, the conservation ethic developed in Powell’s work is celebrated with little regard for its part in a wider discourse of managerialism and efficiency taking root in Washington during the late nineteenth century, nor for the ideological connections between conservation thought and the dispossession of Indian lands in the West” (“Regions” 158).
What concerns me here is precisely how the early Powell—the scientist-explorer and, contrary to his own literary disavowals, the explorer-writer—already encountered obstacles and ambiguities, anticipatory in unsuspected ways of the later tensions in his bureaucratic career, and how he tried to make sense of them in his narrative account of the expedition. These problems were of a different character than the political finagling that took up his Washington days, but in the long run they did lead to and foreshadow those entanglements; Powell’s exploration was virtually the last major gesture in the taking possession of the continental United States in terms that were unavoidably every bit as political as they were, in his own mind, scientific, or perhaps more unconsciously, [End Page 2...